Off to the Seaside!
A Round Trip: Moscow-Crimea-Moscow
There are some Russian words which are instantly recognised by foreigners even if they do not speak any Russian. Words like ikra (caviar), shashlik (kebab), bliny (pancakes) and borshch (beetroot soup) make your mouth water in anticipation but words like militsia (the police), gaishnik (traffic police officer) and KGBeshnik (officer of the KGB) are always accompanied by an involuntary shudder and you start listening in to the conversation, hoping to understand more. And it’s always a treat when your Russian friends invite you to their dacha (cottage in the country) or the banya (sauna). There are lots of words and expressions which, for Russians, are not just words in the dictionary, but are like old friends, close to their hearts; more than mere words, they encapsulate centuries-old traditions and customs.
When you hear about holidays on the shores of the Black Sea (Chernoye Morye), in Crimea (Krym), in Yalta, you soon realise that this is something out of the ordinary. Your friends’ faces light up, they become animated, they can’t stop talking. They regale you with nostalgic stories about their favourite kurort (resort), pansionat (holiday hotel ) or sanatorium (convalescence home), or even their detskii or pioner lager (children's or scout camp). They always have a funny anecdote, usually about running out of money to get there or back, to intersperse with longer tales of chance encounters at kurorts, romantic interludes and long binges with new-found friends.
Years pass, the people in the stories change, but Crimea stays the same – a magical corner of the country where thousand of former USSR citizens went each year to rest and play, convalesce and enjoy themselves.
The Crimean peninsula has not actually been part of the Russian homeland for some time. It is part of Ukraine, so every journey to this holiday destination involves crossing a border. This small detail is usually lost in the story-telling, or is used to lend some colour to an adventure, for crossing borders between countries in the old Soviet Union was always guaranteed to raise the adrenalin level. But somehow the Crimea has always remained a part of Russia in the popular psyche, especially for the people who live there.
To really appreciate the attractions of this Russian Riviera and understand why, since the time of Catherine II in the eighteenth century, Crimea has been called the Pearl of the Black Sea, you have to visit its south coast.
There are several choices of route to get there from Moscow. You can recline in a comfortable couchette for a long day’s journey by train, or take a 2-hour flight to the capital city, Simferopol, where a bus, marshrutka (shuttle bus) or taxi will take you to any part of the peninsula. Crimea is only 1500 km away from Moscow, not too far by Russian standards, so you could also go by car. Alone on the road, na doroge, you can really discover the mood of the people and feel the pulse of the country.
The Simferopol Highway starts in Moscow, and just beyond the Moscow Ring Road you literally cross into another country: no longer Moscow, this is simply Russia. The hurly-burly of the city erases the traces of the millions of people who have lived there over the course of history, but outside the capital the legacies of the Soviet past and the realities of contemporary life exist side by side, as before. The bright lights of modern filling stations, restaurants and hotels light up the road. Here and there along the roadside are announcements written in felt-tip pen on cardboard, advertising ‘Petrol Sold Here’. Off the back of a lorry? Amazing, just like the good old days. Another sign announces ‘Black caviar. Fresh. 500g for 1000 roubles’. Too cheap to be the real thing, but pricey for fake. The person selling this great deal assures you that it’s caviar all right, the real thing – but of course it’s really imitation. ‘But it’ll come in handy,’ as the Crimeans say.
The nearer you get to the coast, the more polite and more open people become. Everyone wants to help, everyone takes an interest. It’s almost embarrassing. For example, the way the customs formalities operate at the border between Russia and Ukraine is quite original. People smile, and are concerned for your comfort. ‘It’s all right, no need to get out of the car, there’s a bit of a wind.’ The customs officers fill the forms for you. You relax, the anticipated surge of adrenaline dies away. What’s the reason for all this politeness? Would it be the sight of a foreign (i.e. not a Russian) passport? Ukraine is keen to join the European Union.
Sudak. Genuezskaya Fortress
But just the same, you mustn’t let your guard down. The old habit of Soviet times to run rackets and earn a little on the side out of travellers, especially foreigners, is not yet eradicated. Highway patrols, occasionally of a dubious character, stop cars with foreign licence plates and think up excuses for a fine.
It’s a long old road, and the journey takes about 24 hours and is not an easy one. But it is worth it, simply to sit in a cafe on the shores of the Black Sea with a glass of Crimean wine, in one of the many bays or inlets around Sevastopol, and all the difficulties of the road are forgotten.
Restaurant menus and wine lists can be just as informative as a guidebook. Russian, Ukrainian, Caucasian, Uzbek and Greek dishes reflect the peninsula’s rich history. Crimea’s geographical position, in particular its south coast, has always ensured it a place as an important cultural melting pot and maritime trading post between East and West. The benevolent climate and great natural diversity have drawn Scythians, Greeks, Romans, Huns, Tatars and Turks to this lovely corner of the world.
It was only at the end of the 18th century, following the victory over the Ottoman Turks, that Crimea became part of the Russian Empire. The peninsula became a favourite holiday resort first for the Russian aristocracy and then for the Soviet nomenklatura (the political establishment) and, eventually, for ordinary people.
The best itinerary for a first visit has to be a trip along Crimea’s south coast. Useful tips and hints can be found in the wine list in any restaurant. The South Coast is literally carpeted with a mosaic of vineyards. Local sovkhozes (farms) produce table, dessert and fortified wines which can be sampled in restaurants or in special tasting rooms in the local wineries. Wine-tasting is an essential ingredient of any holiday in Crimea.
Sevastopol and its environs are a living open-air museum of history. The city is proud of its heroic defence during the many attempts to occupy it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Memorials, museums and even the architecture of the buildings reflect the courage of all the Russian sailors who defended the city, but the best known are the Memorial to the Sunken Ships and the white colonnade of the Grafskaya landing stage.
Sevastopol is a lively city with a huge port the home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Ukrainian Fleet. Despite the naval presence the resort has a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. The locals go about their business unhurriedly and are always dressed for summer even when the air is chilly, with young girls in short skirts and little white boots and young men with their jackets undone.
The monuments throughout the entire area remind you that Sevastopol has a long history. Just a few kilometres from the city centre is the village of Balaclava, lying in the bowl of a small bay and reminding the visitor of Italy’s famous Portofino. The ruins of the old fortress on a hilltop above the shoreline date from the seventh to sixth century BC. Balaclava began to develop as a typical resort town in the early twentieth century and was the centre of the new expanding tourist industry in the south. Today, the Balaclava coastline is an enclave of cafes, restaurants, hotels and shops, and now boasts an upmarket marina.
If you are looking for somewhere to stay overnight in the Sevastopol area, Balaclava is possibly the best place to be. You can relax in its romantic and peaceful atmosphere. There are lots of comfortable hotels and you can even get a room in the marina with a view over the bay.
Cape Ajtodor. Lastochkinoe Gnezdo
Nestling in the heart of Sevastopol Bay is another ancient town, Inkerman, best reached by boat. While the ruins of the old Kalamit fortress and the cave monastery are unmissable sights, Inkerman is best known for its wines. The wines are aged in oak casks in stone cellars up to 30 metres underground. This gives the wine its unique tone and taste.
No visit to Sevastopol is complete without a trip to the ancient site of Tauric Chersonesos. The ruins of this Crimean Athens date from the end of the fifth century BC.
Bakhchisarai, the old capital of the Crimean Khanate, lies 40 km (just under 30 miles) from Sevastopol towards Simferopol, in the mountainous part of the Crimea. As well as a visit to the Khan’s palace, visitors to the area may also wish to ramble along the scores of pathways open for walking through the local valleys and gorges. Crimea’s outstanding gorge, Kachi-Kalyon, and other tourist attractions – the mediaeval cave cities of Mangun and Eski-Kermen, the ancient fortress of Chufut-Kale and Uspensky Monastery – are only a few minutes’ drive from Bakhchisarai by car.
Another special tourist attraction here is the cheburechnaya (which sells meat pasties, chebureki) opposite the palace. Don’t just look at it and pass by. Go in. The old shabby sign at the entrance looks as though it has been hanging there since Soviet times. The furniture and furnishings, too, seem to date from the same period. The tables are covered with oil cloths and the chairs with their thin iron legs stand in rows against the walls in a huge half-empty vault-like space. Artificial ivy cascades down the walls. Two huge fans are suspended from the plastic-tiled ceiling, their blades turning in a lazy, Soviet way. The floor and walls are tiled in rectangles of typical Soviet light-coloured marble. The waitress, a middle-aged woman with round rosy cheeks, emerges from the kitchen as though emerging from yesteryear. She brings a menu, but doesn’t wait around to read it through with you. Here you have chebureki. Six sticks to a helping: hot, soft and juicy. The smell and taste remains in the memory, along the road to Yalta and on the long trip back to Moscow.
To get to Yalta you can follow the coastline as it snakes along past Cape Fiolent, Cape Aia and Cape Sarych – the southernmost point of Crimea. The panoramas that unfold are quintessentially Mediterranean. High cliffs drop precipitously to the sea and a thick pine forest cloaks the encircling hills. An alternative route takes you through the pass across the Ai-Petri ridge. Here a steep narrow path zigzags up and down over wooded hills densely covered with birch, spruce and fir. Both roads are equally spectacular.
Immediately after you have crossed the valley you have to stop, even if just for tea or coffee, at the U Zheni cafe, an Armenian zabegalovka, where Zhenya, after whom the establishment is named, dispenses hospitality and puts all his soul into his singing. He is even prepared to share tips for survival in an expensive tourist resort. If you want to know how to find a twin room with a sea view for a mere 30 dollars in the Mariino Hotel, one of the most prestigious in town and usually charging 150 dollars the room, he’s the man to tell you. All you have to do is find Vanya, the local fixer, and he’ll fix it for you, for a small ‘consideration’.
And so we come to Yalta, which can be either your destination or the start point for further excursions. There are interesting sights to see along the mountain road to the town. The roar of a huge mass of water announces the nearness of the Uchan-Su Waterfall, which, the guidebooks tell you, tumbles from a precipice twice as high as the Niagara Falls. This is indeed the case, but, if you’re from North America, don’t be offended, they’re both impressive. Just standing at its foot and being drenched with its spray leaves an unforgettable impression.
Not far from here is the famous Belaya Dacha, the white house where Anton Chekhov came to holiday, surrounded by the sound of the waterfall, and write his plays.
Yalta itself is simply amazing. It is a very European resort, and in terms of the quantity and quality of its attractions and services and the prices it charges, can confidently compete with the most luxurious of holiday destinations. There are cafes, restaurants and hotels to match any taste and budget. Hotels recently restored in the style of late Russian classicism stand side by side with Soviet-style boarding houses and rest homes. New apartments and hotel complexes have sprung up in the hills above, and building is still in full swing, which both pleases and alarms the locals. In recent years land has been bought up by Muscovites and prices have unbelievably risen to as much as US$100,000 the sotka (100 m2). Building holiday homes and multistorey apartments for onward sale is the latest trend. ‘It won’t work out well in the end,’ mutter the locals. ‘Crimea’s an active earthquake zone. The ground’s unstable and there’s a high risk of landslide.’ On the other hand, it is tourism that is driving development in the Crimea.
For people who enjoy active holidays, Yalta has something for every taste: paragliding, diving, rockclimbing, walking, trekking and horse-riding. You can also take your tent and camp out wild in the mountains for several days.
In the evening, as in any holiday resort, one of the most pleasurable activities is walking along the promenade and dropping into any of the many establishments dotted along the coast for a glass of wine and some live music. If romantic atmospheres are more in your line, you can buy a bottle of wine and savour its bouquet al fresco in the square beneath the lighthouse. You’ll meet a real Yaltinets, a native of Yalta, and be regaled with the improbable stories and historical secrets of the old town. Who would have thought that it was under the loom of this very lighthouse that one Soviet Party boss, rather the worse for drink, dived in to the water to ‘freshen up’ and a submarine was sent out into the bay ‘to protect him’.
Livadiya. Writings on the stone: Sunny footpath. The beginning of the route. Distance 6711m.
A stroll out of town can be equally rewarding. Just a few kilometres to the east of Yalta are the villages of Nikita, with its fabulous botanical garden, and Massandra, home of the famous port wine. After a tour of the Tsar’s palace you can have a well-earned stop in the tasting rooms of the local winery.
To the west of the city are many palaces, originally the homes of Russian aristocrats, which were later converted in Soviet times to nursing homes and sanatoriums, and are now museums. It is an easy 3 km walk (about a mile and a half) to Livadia and the Livadia palace. A forest path, the Solnechnaya Tropa or Sun Path, then leads you on to the Ai-Todor viewing platform. Members of the Romanov imperial family and the Emperor himself used to enjoy this 6 km (4 mile) walk. Walking on further, you come to perhaps the most famous symbol of the south coast and Crimea itself – Lastochkinoe Gnezdo, the Swallow’s Nest.
This diminutive toy-like castle, built at the beginning of the twentieth century, is perched on a sheer cliff above the sea. For the last fifty years it has been used as a restaurant for the elite. Nowadays they serve exquisite Italian food, for the Swallow’s Nest is now a business run with foreign investment and chefs from Verona. You are greeted at the entrance by a silver-haired waiter, Vyacheslav, who takes great pride in giving you a guided tour of the legendary castle. Vyacheslav is himself the stuff of legend. He has worked in the restaurant for more than forty years. Just think of the people he must have seen sitting at these tables and the conversations he must have heard between the honoured guests, the events, closed to the general public, he must have been witness to, and the secrets he has kept to this day. His elegant, measured manners and his unhurried but precisely calculated movements are the outward sign that he knows much about life, probably more than most. Only after a meal at the Swallow’s Nest can you leave Yalta and progress on your way along the coast.
The road to Feodosia winds along the shoreline, sometimes cresting a hill, sometimes dropping down to the sea. You pass through the tiny resort towns of Alushta, Sudak and Koktebel, strung out like a necklace of pearls along the South Coast.
Feodosia marks the end of the mountainous part of Crimea; from here a virtually straight road cuts through a flat steppe landscape for 100 km to the major port of Kerch, at the eastern extremity of the peninsula. This is a city based more on commerce than tourism, though the surrounding area is of great interest to the archaeologist for there are always digs in progress here, excavating antique settlements.
The Kerch Strait forms a natural border between the two countries. Fifteen minutes on the ferry, an hour and a half of customs formalities – and you are back in Russia.
In the Crimea every bus station has kiosks, where privately run agencies can help you find a room or apartment for any length of time.
In hotels, especially the large ones, you have to ask the manager about the arrangements for hot water and room heating. Hot water is often available only at certain times of the day. A typical timetable would be one hour in the morning and two in the evening. Small private hotels do not as a rule have this problem, and each room will have its own electric heater.
Do not under any circumstance change your money through private individuals you meet in the street. It is all too easy to fall prey to con artists. All towns have banks and bureaux de change. The further you are off the tourist track, the better the exchange rate.